A Nation under Guilt

A Nation under Guilt

Mini Teaser: Two recent histories of Nazi Germany shore up the dyke against the rising flood of "Germany as victim" revisionism.

by Author(s): Martin Walker

Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (New York: Penguin Press, 2004), 622 pp., $34.95.

Nikolaus Wachsmann, Hitler's Prisons: Legal Terror in Nazi Germany (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 538 pp., $45.

At the invitation of French president Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder joined the leaders of the Allied powers of World War II at this year's 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings. His presence, a subtle suggestion that Germans may also claim to have been liberated from Hitler's tyranny by the Allies, was a richly symbolic moment in Schröder's long campaign for his country to be treated as "a normal nation." This had been an important theme of his first successful election campaign in 1998, and the "normal nation" phrase was deployed to justify his bold decision to deploy German troops abroad (for the first time since 1945) in Kosovo-Metohija and Afghanistan.

The increasing official prominence given in Berlin to the annual commemoration of the July 20, 1944 bomb plot against Hitler should be seen in the same political context. Graduating cadets from the Bundeswehr military academy now take their oaths of allegiance to the Federal Republic and its constitution on the date of the abortive assassination attempt and at the site of the former Wehrmacht HQ. The political implication is clear: There was a brave and determined German resistance to Hitler, and therefore Germans also enjoyed a real liberation in 1945. The new Germany, which takes an honorable part in the military operations of the international community as mandated by the UN Security Council, should thus finally be allowed to emerge from the long shadow of the Third Reich.

Officially, some countries agree; hence the invitation to the D-Day event in Normandy this year. The event was marked by little of that international furor that attended the presence of President Ronald Reagan at the Bitburg military cemetery some twenty years ago, when it was learned that SS men were among the dead. Germany and the world have moved on and the World War II generation is dead or in retirement. But the history never quite goes away. In April of this year, the German agency in charge of war graves found, after a request by Schröder's sister Gunhild, the unmarked grave of their father Corporal Fritz Schröder, killed in 1944 by partisans in Romania at the age of 32. Schröder, who never saw his father, has said that he will at some point visit the grave, and hoped for privacy from the media when he did so.

He is unlikely to get it, because Germans are as fascinated by their own past as anyone else. But the recent wave of books and films about the Third Reich suggests an important new element has entered the national memory. The new theme is Germans as victims. Jorg Friedrich's Der Brand: Deutschland im Bombenkrieg 1940-1945 ("The Fire: Germany in the Bombing War") deals at length with the horrors inflicted on civilians by the Allies' strategic bombing campaign, while giving short shrift to the Luftwaffe's own pioneering efforts in Guernica, Rotterdam, London and Coventry. Gunther Grass's new novel, Crabwalk, deals with the sinking of the cruise ship Gustloft taking refugees from Königsberg with 4,000 children aboard. The Fall of Berlin, by the British historian Anthony Beevor, with its powerful account of the mass rapes of German women by the victorious Red Army, has become a best seller. The film Amen (directed by Costa-Gavras) recounts the vain but heroic attempts by German officer Kurt Gerstain to alert the Catholic and Lutheran church hierarchy to the reality of the extermination camps.

This is not an improper rewriting of history so much as changing the angle of vision from Germans as extraordinary perpetrators of a unique evil to Germans as fellow-sufferers of a unique regime. There is something in this. Even in the election of March 1933, two months after Hitler came to power, and after the Communist Party had been driven underground and the Social Democrats and trade unions crushed, Hitler won only 17 million votes in an electorate of 45 million. With the support of their Nationalist allies, the Nazi-led coalition won 51.9 percent of the votes cast (and were somewhat surprised to have done so well. "Unbelievable figures", Goebbels confided to his diary.) But even from the underground, the Communists took over 12 percent of the vote, the Social Democrats won 18.3 percent and the mainly-Catholic Center Party took 11.2 percent. The Nazis won over 50 percent of the vote only in the lands east and north of Berlin. Throughout the Rhineland and in most of Bavaria and central Germany, they scored less than 40 percent of the vote.

It is entirely understandable that the Federal Republic should seek to present the Hitler period and the Third Reich as an aberration from which they suffered as much as other Europeans. First, this has become a habit. Throughout the Cold War, East Germany viciously claimed that West Germany was the heir to the capitalist and military-industrial complex on whose behalf Hitler had seized power and sought to crush communism both in Germany and in its Soviet homeland. This charge had to be constantly refuted, particularly after 1968, when a disturbing proportion of young Germans seemed inclined to believe it. Second, no self-respecting state can abide the debilitating thought that it represents a people eternally flawed with an extreme political version of original sin. Third, modern Germans (and their allies and partners in NATO and the European Union) have reason to be proud of the stable and prosperous democracy they have built.

So the received wisdom of modern German historiography has been dominated by Ernst Fraenkel's theory of the Third Reich as a Dual State, in which a normal, law-abiding and fundamentally decent German state endured, while a parasitic Nazi system with its Gestapo and SS and concentration camps grew alongside to hold monstrous sway. In this concept, the German army remained honorable and brave, while the crimes were committed by the Waffen SS. German intelligence, the Abwehr, remained efficient and reasonable (and ready to deal discreetly with the Allies) while the wickedness was perpetrated by Schellenburg's SS intelligence division, the Sicherheitsdienst. The German judicial system continued to function with an eye to legal norms, while the gross distortions of justice lay at the door of the Nazi People's Courts. Ultimately, this concept of the Dual State leads to a suggestion of Nazi guilt and German innocence, and throughout the Cold War it was convenient for the NATO allies to accede to this view.

That was not how it seemed to a number of German historians, of whom the first and foremost was Friedrich Meinecke, who produced The German Catastrophe in 1946. Meinecke's book pre-empted the theory of the Dual State and the Nazis as a bizarre aberration from a healthy German civilization by asking a version of Thucydides' question: If a great state falls as a result of a single battle, then what was unsound in the state to make it so oddly vulnerable? If a great civilization falls into the hands of a gang of murderously deranged thugs, then what was it in that civilization that allowed it to be so misled? Meinecke concluded that the German nation state had been poisoned from its Bismarckian birth in 1871 by militarism and an obsession with power. In his new book, The Coming of the Third Reich, Richard Evans, the Cambridge professor of modern history, inclines strongly to Meinecke's view. He notes of the constitution Bismarck devised for the new German Reich in 1871, "alone of all modern German constitutions, it lacked any declaration of principle about human rights and civic freedoms."

Evans has produced the first of a three-volume narrative history that promises to be a masterpiece. This first volume, which deals with the origins and establishment of the Nazi state, will be followed by a second on the building of the Third Reich until 1939, and the third will deal with the war and collapse. Evans decided to write it when he was serving as an expert witness for the defense in the celebrated libel trial of David Irving, the British historian who sued Deborah Lipstadt (and lost) for suggesting that he was something of an apologist for the Nazi regime. Evans noted that many aspects of the Nazi regime remained poorly documented, and there was "no really wide-ranging, detailed overall account of the broader historical context of Nazi policies towards the Jews in the general history of the Third Reich." Later, while serving on the British government's Spoliation Advisory Panel, weighing claims for the return of property stolen in the Nazi era, he again found that "there was no general history of Nazi Germany to which I could direct other members of the panel." He has thus produced one and has been forced to plunge into the tangled issue of the German past, the roots of Nazism and whether or not Hitlerism was quite the aberration that the Bonn and Berlin Republics insist it was.

Essay Types: Book Review